Back Home Down South
Just three days into the free agency period, Al inked a three-year deal with the Charlotte Bobcats to become the new centerpiece of the franchise.
It was an early and aggressive move for the Bobcats, a team coming off consecutive disappointing seasons that signaled a clear decision by Charlotte to become an immediate threat in the Eastern Conference.
Many were shocked that Al signed so early into free agency with the Bobcats, but the reality was that Charlotte had been courting Al for a while. Charlotte’s young rising point guard Kemba Walker and president of basketball operations Rich Higgins were both excited about the prospect of landing Al, and according to Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer, Walker went to work on getting Al to join him as soon as the 2012-2013 season came to an end:
At Walker’s exit meeting last season with Higgins and general manager Rich Cho, Walker was asked what upcoming free agent might be most helpful. Walker pulled out his phone, called up a list of those players, and said Jefferson was clearly his top choice.
So Higgins reminded Walker that he and Jefferson share an agent, Jeff Schwartz, so it was Walker’s job to start the sales pitch, months before Jefferson officially became a free agent July 1.
Walker went to work, scheduling a meal with Jefferson in New York City to express what a good fit this could be. The Bobcats followed up on that effort by immediately making a pitch at midnight the first day of free-agency. Jefferson flew into Charlotte for a visit, expressed his desire to sign here and the deal was done.
Many questioned why Al would choose a small-market team that has consistently finished far from playoff contention. Al for his part, said he stuck to his small-town upbringing and beliefs, and chose Charlotte because it felt like a good fit for him according to Steve Reed of the Associated Press:
“I can’t express how happy I am to be here,” said Jefferson, who was introduced at a press conference on Wednesday. “The Charlotte Bobcats did a great job coming at me (in free agency) and made me feel like they were a team that really respected my game and made me feel like a part of the family…
“My whole town is not bigger than this room,” Jefferson said with a laugh.” And if they had an NBA team in Prentiss I would go there. I don’t think about the city. All of that other stuff doesn’t matter to me. I figure when a team wants you to come play in the NBA, do it.”
And Al wasn’t the only one excited about his arrival in Charlotte. Walker was thrilled to see his recruiting efforts pay off for his team.
“Was I excited (about the signing)? I almost shed a tear,” Walker said. “That’s what we need: A guy we always can go to to get a bucket.”
Unfortunately for fans in Charlotte, Al’s arrival was delayed by a right ankle sprain that caused him to miss the entire preseason and nine of the team’s first 12 games.
Though he was slowed by an ankle injury at the outset of the season, upon his return, Al showed glimpses of promise while working himself back into rhythm. By the time January rolled around however, Al was finally healthy, and ready to dominate.
Al averaged 24 points and 11 boards for the month of January, and never looked back from there. During March, he became the only NBA player besides Kevin Love to average more than 25 points and 10 rebounds for a two-month span this season.
Throughout 66 games this season Al has averaged 21.4 points and 10.4 rebounds while posting the 15th best Player Efficiency Rating in the league. He has guided a Charlotte franchise that had only been to the playoffs once in it’s ten-year history into position for the seventh-seed in the East, while leading the team in blowout victories against league giants Portland and Indiana.
Al scored 38 points against the Heat the night before a blowout win against the Pacers, which lead Indiana head coach Frank Vogel to compare Big Al former great Kevin McHale in his pregame comments. Vogel didn’t go back on that praise after Al dropped 34 on the Pacers in the upset Charlotte victory, and told reporters after the loss that Al was, “One of the best in the game.”
Al was named NBA Eastern Conference Player of the Week on March 17, 2014 after a week in which he averaged 24.3 points and 11.5 rebounds, and with the award, began garnering additional attention from across the league.
A week later, Al jumped into the top 10 of NBA.com’s MVP race watch, while sportswriters across America began noting how influential Big Al has been on the Charlotte team. Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated called AL, “A ray of sunshine” for the Bobcats while Zach Lowe of Grantland talked about how influential Big Al was for the rebuilding Bobcats in an article titled “The Charlotte Construction Co.” in which he said:
“Professor Al has been even better than expected. He is the fulcrum of Charlotte’s offense, which has quietly played at about a league-average rate since late December. The uptick corresponded with Jefferson’s return to health after he missed much of training camp and several early games with ankle issues. Jefferson commands a double-team on the block against almost any defender, and that has made life easier for his teammates.”
Big Al and the Cats closed out the regular season strong. No. 25 eclipsed 20 points in seven of his team’s eight games in April to push Charlotte to the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference. Unfortunately, an elusive playoff win wasn’t in the cards.
Al was slowed greatly by painful plantar fasciitis in the playoffs. He gutted his way to back-to-back double-doubles and a 20-point game in the first three games of the team’s postseason matchup with the Miami Heat. But he was sidelined for Game 4 as the Bobcats were ousted from the playoffs.
But overall, the 2013-14 campaign was a huge success—collectively, as well as on an individual level for The Professor. Big Al averaged 21.8 points and 10.8 rebounds per game, both his highest marks in five seasons. It was enough for Big Al to earn his first All-NBA nod. He finished eighth in MVP voting as well—some well-earned recognition for the veteran big man.
“It feels good. I’m very happy about it,” Big Al said. “Ten years and I’ve never made an All-Star game and never made All-NBA…It feels good for me to get recognized and get the respect I got this year, but this is just the beginning.”
Return of the Buzz
The Charlotte franchise began the 2014-15 season with new energy and a new look. The Hornets moniker returned, as did the familiar teal and purple color scheme—marking a new era for the organization.
But unfortunately, the first season with the Buzz back didn’t go as planned for Charlotte. The Hornets stumbled out of the gates, going into the 2015 calendar year with just a 10-23 record. Several key players were injured for Charlotte throughout the year, including Al, Walker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
Battered and bruised, the Hornets rallied late in the season, including a five-game win streak to open the month of March that put Charlotte back in the playoff conversation. No. 25 had three double-doubles and three 20-point games in that span to bring the Hornets to within five games of the .500 mark.
With the playoffs within reach, Big Al battled through a sore knee, adding three more double-doubles and a 31-point effort against the Washington Wizards later in March. But it simply didn’t come together for Charlotte. Without a season’s worth of continuity, the Hornets’ offense couldn’t find its feet consistently—and to make matters more difficult, Big Al’s knee issues sidelined him for the final seven games of the season as the Hornets fell short of the playoffs.
“Normally when the season’s over, I take a month off. I’m coming back here May 4 and starting my training and my summer workouts right here in Charlotte,” said a motivated Big Al during exit interviews. “Not only do I have to prove it to myself, but I want to prove it to my teammates that we have to get back to where we were—and it starts with me and Kemba (Walker). I have to show how serious I am about getting back to the playoffs and advancing. We have a lot of unfinished business to take care of.”
A New Role
Big Al brought that new mentality to the 2015-16 season and it showed early. Just five games in, The Postman already posted a 30-point game, going for 31 and nine rebounds in a win over the Dallas Mavericks.
Al also went for 29 to beat the Portland Trail Blazers, as well as 26 and 10 to top the Philadelphia 76ers. The Hornets were off to a solid start, finishing the month of November at 10-7. But unfortunately, in the month’s final game, Big Al went down with a calf strain and missed nearly a month. He returned for two games in late December—but that’s just how long it took for The Big Fella to tear the meniscus cartilage in his knee, sidelining him until the All-Star break.
In the meantime, the Hornets took on a new identity with Cody Zeller as the starting center. When Al returned after the break, he took on a new role, coming off the bench—and it worked brilliantly.
No. 25 feasted on opposing benches and caused matchup problems, as he led helped the team post a 25-9 record during the second half of the year.
The month of March was simply spectacular. Charlotte won seven straight to start the month and finished 13-3. Embracing his new role, Big Al turned in two double-doubles and two 20-point games, as well as four multi-block efforts in that span.
“You gotta do whatever is best for the team. And that’s how the great teams over the years will get deep into the playoffs and win championships. They put the team first,” Al said. “This team is playing unreal since I’ve been out. I did not look to come back in here and try to mess up their groove. I just wanted to be a part of it. You got to put the team first to do whatever you have to do to help the team get wins and make us better.”
The team clinched a playoff seed on April 2, and finished the season with a respectable 48-34 record and a first-round showdown with the Heat.
Big Al had a solid series against Miami, highlighted individually by a 25-point, seven-rebound effort in Game 2. That output came in a defeat which put the Hornets down 2-0, but they kept fighting. Charlotte won the next three as Al totaled 33 points, 20 rebounds, six assists, two blocks and two steals to take control of the series.
But the Hornets, who hadn’t previously won a playoff game since the original Hornets made the 2002 Eastern Conference semifinals, couldn’t close it out against a postseason veteran squad in the Heat. Miami took the final two contests to end Charlotte’s campaign.
When Big Al finished his 2015-16 season, he said that he hoped to return to the Hornets and finish his career in Charlotte. However, when free agency arrived, the franchise went in another direction as The Postman headed to a state where basketball is a lifestyle.
On July 8, the Indiana Pacers announced the signing of Big Al—and the Mississippi native said that he had found a new home in Indianapolis.
“When I actually got the call I thought, wow, I guess my gut feeling was right,” Al said. “I didn’t talk to nobody (else). It was just Pacers. At this point in my career I’ve put myself in a position where I can go where I want to go as far as what’s best for me, and for winning. For me, no other team out there (was a better fit).”
Big Al went on to play two seasons with the Pacers, ending in two consecutive playoff appearances. In his first season with the team, Big Al played in 66 games, averaging 8.1 points and 4.2 rebounds in a pivotal reserve role.
In year two in Indiana, No. 25 assumed more of a mentor role, helping guide a new, young roster — comprised of rising stars Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner — to a playoff berth and a near upset of the eventual Eastern Conference Champions, the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Pacers President of Basketball Operations Kevin Pritchard knew more than anyone that Jefferson’s value during that season went beyond the box score.
“You look at him and he’s not playing much but the influence he has on our team is gripping,” Pritchard said after the trade deadline. “He really has the team’s ear. I didn’t want to take a player like that off our team and out of our locker room.”
Big Al’s influence helped young players like Sabonis adjust quickly to the NBA game and have a successful rookie campaign, which contributed to a surprisingly successful season for the Pacers after trading away Paul George.
“He always tells me things like to attack quick,” Sabonis said during the season. “He says I’m a lot quicker than the other guys, so don’t always be banging into someone. If he sees a particular matchup, he’s probably guarded that player a lot more than me, so he tells me what will work.”
In the 36 games Big Al played, he proved he was still an effective piece, averaging 7.0 points and 4.0 rebounds in those appearances. The Pacers entered the playoffs as the fifth seed but found a tough matchup in LeBron James and the No. 4 seed Cavaliers. They lost to the eventual Eastern Conference Champion Cavs in seven games in the first round.
A NEW BEGINNING
That series also marked the quiet end to Big Al’s NBA playing career. He went on to play a short stint in China before returning to the U.S. where he was ready to call it a career.
“When I left Indiana to go to China, I kind of knew that was going to be my last run. I just wanted to get that out of my system and play at a high level,” Al said. [It] didn’t work out for me. When I came home, I decided to just hang it up and be good.”
But Big Al wasn’t done just yet.
He got a phone call from the recently formed summer league, The BIG3, run by Ice Cube and jumped at the chance to play a different brand of basketball.
“When somebody told me I could play half-court basketball at a high level, that was my game,” he said. “Sign me up.”
It was a match made in heaven — Big Al and the BIG3.
In his first year in the 3-on-3 style hoops league, Big Al was assigned as a co-captain to the expansion Triplets and along with fellow NBA vet Joe Johnson, helped the Triplets take the league by storm. Over the course of eight games, Big Al scored a total of 75 points, second on the team only to Johnson, while shooting 57 percent from the floor. He added 40 total rebounds and a team-high 5 blocks.
The Triplets cruised into the postseason as the top-seed and defeated the 3-Headed Monsters and Killer 3’s in succession to win the 2019 BIG3 Championship, Big Al’s first basketball title since high school.